Billy “The Great” Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the reigning junior middleweight boxing champion in Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw. Hope is blessed with a beautiful and loving wife (Rachel McAdams) as well as a sprig of daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). When tragedy strikes, all of his blessings are stripped from him, impelling him to fall from grace. Because of his reckless behavior, the court deems him unable to care for his daughter. Tick Willis, a former fighter turned trainer (Forest Whitaker) helps him in his attempt to rise from the ashes. But while he fights to regain his lost title, the prize that he is really fighting for is his daughter’s love and trust.
Though Southpaw is a film about boxing, it explores deeper themes like the problem of evil and the incomparable gift of family in an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable world. After finding out that one of his students has been murdered, Tick raises his eyes to heaven and asks, “What is this s–t?” He, like Hope, has to face the hard, cruel reality that evil occurs daily and touches the people he loves on a regular basis. While Hope may ask the same question, he processes his grief in a different way. He just wants his daughter back. Since he has already lost his wife, having his daughter taken by child services relegates him to an island of torment and grief. Once a rich man, he loses everything he values, both material and immaterial. But after the death of his wife, his possessions are seen for what they truly are: fleeting and worthless compared to the incomparable worth inherent in human beings.
At one point in the film, Tick tells Hope that his goal as a fighter should be to let his opponent’s mistakes be their own destruction in the ring. Hope nearly destroys himself, but Tick teaches him how to protect himself for the sake of his daughter, Leila. The movie promotes the value of the family over all else, but as the film progresses, the definition of family is stretched to include certain individuals outside of biological boundaries. Leila’s social worker, Angela (Naomi Harris), and Tick become welcome additions to Hope’s family.
James Horner provides the score, which is predictably emotional, but it fits the overall tone of the film. Horner has a long history of creating musical themes that tug at the heartstrings, and his composition for Southpaw is no exception. The end credits dedicate this film to Horner and his memory. (The Academy Award winning composer died in a plane crash on June 22nd, 2015 while piloting a small plane over central California.) This, as well as the overall message of the film serves as a painful reminder of how fleeting life can be and how all loves will be loves that are lost in the end. Unless, there is one who can save us from death. Unless there is one who took on flesh to save all flesh from seeing ultimate corruption and decay. Billy Hope fights hard to regain his daughter’s trust. His will to sacrifice for his daughter is a beautiful thing to behold in a world full of absentee fathers. He literally bleeds to get his daughter back.
While Southpaw might not be the best boxing film ever made, Gyllenhaal and Whitaker’s performances are authentic enough to pull the viewer into the ring. Southpaw serves as a potent reminder of the value of family and friends, a common grace that begs to be enjoyed by all. Fuqua’s film illustrates that families and friends teach us how to love.
According to Fuqua, there are two types of people: Those who exist to use others for their own gain, and those who serve others. Southpaw admonishes the viewer to choose the latter instead of the former. We are also challenged to be men and women who are willing to do the hard work that real love requires. There is a God who longs for us to trust him, but like Hope, He does not force his children to reciprocate that love. True love knows what to wait for and what to fight for.